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Acting Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, Chris Bowen and Kate Ellis remonstrate with Leader of the House Christopher Pyne during Question Time in Parliament House.

Acting Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, Chris Bowen and Kate Ellis remonstrate with Leader of the House Christopher Pyne during Question Time in Parliament House. Photo: Andrew Meares

The hands have it. And the facial expressions.

The House of Representatives during question time is a stage. In the absence of the two main players, the deputies get their chance to make their mark upon the audience.

Peta Credlin speaks to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time.

Peta Credlin speaks to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on Monday were winging their way to South Africa for the final farewell to Nelson Mandela.

Abbott left behind two stand-ins: Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and Liberal deputy Julie Bishop. Shorten's spot at the dispatch box was taken by Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek.

Truss was watched closely by Abbott's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and put no step out of line.

Ms Plibersek and Ms Bishop, however, were each most unwilling to concede centre stage to the other.

Ms Bishop delivered an ode to the new free trade agreement between Australia and South Korea, and couldn't resist tossing a barb across the table. Such an agreement, she declared, ''could never have been concluded with those opposite [Labor] because of their ideological barrier''.

It stirred Ms Plibersek to demand that Ms Bishop table a copy of the agreement.

Such a benign request turned into a confection of hostilities, the charge from government benches that Ms Plibersek was too inexperienced to know the request was out of order because Ms Bishop had no note, let alone a copy of the trade agreement before her, and an outbreak of hand gestures that might only be interpreted as ''what would you know?''

Fairfax photographers Andrew Meares and Alex Ellinghausen were on hand to capture the histrionic moments, proving that a picture is worth a thousand words.